Uber/Lyft Driver: New Return-to-Work Option?

Five years after Uber was approved for operation in Orleans Parish, rideshare services could be positioning themselves as a return-to-work option for injured workers

Uber and Lyft have taken considerable heat as they overtake traditional livery and taxi services for classifying their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. However, one overlooked benefit of these companies is their low barriers to entry, which could open them up for alternative employment and offset insurers’ supplemental earnings benefits (SEBs).

For his part, Larry Stokes, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with his own Stokes and Associates, and a member of the Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council, sees the potential. “Driving for Uber or Lyft is a fairly new job opportunity in the labor market. However, these jobs are very much like the well-known jobs of chauffeur, limousine or taxi driver,” Stokes explained. “The Uber/Lyft driver operates a private car and transports passengers according to their request.

Thought of under these terms, it’s easy to see why vocational rehabilitation counselors might consider rideshare driver as a new wave version of the familiar.

According to Stokes, the physical demands of the occupation range from sedentary to medium based on the U.S.D.O.L. categories of strength demand and classification of jobs. If the driver only transports passengers and do no lifting, the job “easily qualifies as sedentary.”

If the driver happens to take passengers with luggage to the airport or pick them up from a grocery store with their items it would be light, however, drivers can see where the passenger is going and their starting location and could choose not to accept those rides. Stokes noted though that adequate vision and hearing, plus the worker’s ability to cope with normal vehicle operations must be considered.

Rhonda Coffee, a vocational rehabilitation counselor currently serving as Case Management Manager for CorVel Corporation in Metairie, added that she would need to assess “educational status” to ensure that the driver is “competent enough to read and navigate safely.” Further, she said that the vehicle would need to be safe and “approved by the company to transport individuals.” On the soft skills side, Coffee noted that the injured worker “may not be a people person” so occupational interest would need to be established

From Stokes’ perspective, Uber/Lyft driving “is a relatively easy way to return to work after an injury because it requires very little training for most clients, and is in very high demand for workers.” However, he warns that there is a difference between an occupation and a job. Occupations are groups of jobs that exist in the labor market, while a job is particular to the employer. “In my career over the last 36 years I have seen occupations come and go, and some change in the ways they are performed,” Stokes explained. “But when looking at the main purpose for a job such as driving, nothing has changed. It is still driving.”

In the context of reducing insurer exposure to SEB, the potential is murky due to incomplete data from Uber and a range of study results.

A 2018 study from the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, based on a survey of over 1,100 rideshare drivers, found that the “median profit from driving is $3.37 per hour before taxes, and 74 percent of drivers earn less than the minimum wage in their state.”

Uber Chief Economist Jonathan Hall rebutted those claims in Medium, arguing with MIT’s methodology and citing “a study with Stanford professors estimated gross hourly earnings of $21.07 for all US [Uber] drivers between January 2015 and March 2017.” Anecdotally, in cities like New York, where demand and per mile rates are high, drivers make upwards of $500 per nine to eleven hour work day.

Considering that information, driving for Uber/Lyft might only bring an injured worker back up to their pre-employment wages if they were earning minimum wage at the time of injury, limiting the scope of its usefulness as a job placement option for SEB offset. In of itself though, vocational rehabilitation is designed to return the injured worker back to meaningful and gainful employment, Uber and Lyft could easily fit that bill for the right worker.

Image Credit: RideShareApps.com

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